Forget 'Cool Britannia'. 'Rule Britannia' will bring in tourists, says Cameron

Exit Cool Britannia, re-enter Rule Britannia. David Cameron has held out the hope of attracting millions of tourists to rebuild the economy by concentrating on Britain's history.

In a break with Labour's policy of promoting the UK as a vibrant, even quirky, inventive modern economy to banish what opinion polls regularly say is seen as a stuffy image abroad, the Prime Minister shifted the country's pitch for visitor pounds towards "heritage".

Instead of drinks parties at Downing Street for pop stars such as Noel Gallagher, he implied, the focus would be on celebrating existing attractions and solving practical problems.

As part of the campaign, the Government is determined to remove some of the obstacles which deter tourists from visiting, including improving the service for issuing visas in key markets such as China and India. Mr Cameron said that ministers were looking at a wide range of issues "from the speed of our broadband to the speed of our railways to the time it takes to clear customs at Heathrow".

Although many Britons head out of the country during the summer holidays to warmer places such as France and Spain, their place is taken by foreign visitors – Britain is the sixth most visited country in the world. Twenty-eight million foreign visitors came to the UK last year to gawp at the Changing of the Guard outside Buckingham Palace, or view their ancestors' artworks in the British Museum and other galleries.

Tourism is worth £115bn a year to the UK economy. But Mr Cameron said it had been neglected. "For too long tourism has been looked down on as a second-class service sector. That's just wrong. Tourism is a fiercely competitive market, requiring skills, talent, enterprise and a government that backs Britain. It's fundamental to the rebuilding and rebalancing of our economy. It's one of the best and fastest ways of generating the jobs we need so badly in this country. And it's absolutely crucial to us making the most of the Olympics and indeed a whole decade of international sport across Britain."

Between 2008 and and 2009, he said, the UK had fallen from sixth to 11th place in the World Economic Forum's travel and tourism competitiveness ratings. He complained: "The last government underplayed our tourist industry. There were eight different ministers with responsibility for tourism in just 13 years. They just didn't get our heritage. They raided the National Lottery, taking money from heritage because it didn't go with their image of 'Cool Britannia'."

Commentators used the phrase "Cool Britannia" to describe the flowering of pop music and art shortly before Labour took power in 1997, but it was especially associated with Tony Blair's courting of pop stars and media figures at a series of No 10 receptions. Ben Bradshaw, shadow Culture Secretary, accused Mr Cameron of ignoring Labour's efforts to promote tourism, such providing free entry to galleries and museums. The British Museum was the UK's most popular attraction last year, with 4.7 million visits.

Tourism bosses – who have been fearful of steep cuts at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport – welcomed the speech. James Berresford, chief executive of VisitEngland, said he was delighted the Prime Minister had "identified the importance of tourism to this country". "Tourism is a hugely important economic driver and is one of but a few sectors that if properly supported can offer real growth potential," he said.

"We particularly welcome the Government's pledge to support the growth of the private sector and its commitment to ensure issues affecting tourism are tackled effectively across government."

Belying the honeyed words are concerns about infrastructure, airport capacity and coherent government. Under Labour the budget of VisitBritain was cut by a fifth and tourism leaders fear further cuts of up to 40 per cent at the Department of Culture Media and Sport. They want extra airport runways in the South-east. More smiles would also help.

The UK is rated 14th out of 50 globally for quality of the welcome. Foreigners view Britons as honest, funny, kind and efficient but – in VisitBritain's words – "in some cases they wish we offered a more exuberant welcome".

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